Edinburgh to Swindon – not quite so exciting

Waiting at Waverley Station I noticed for the first time that there’s a very ornate roof in the main waiting-room, which I think was once the ticket hall. I think the reason I’ve missed seeing it before is that there was a coffee kiosk right in the centre of the area for quite a few years. As well as the ceiling decoration the walls have imitation pillars here and there which mimic some of the architecture in Edinburgh. I’ve tried to take a picture but it doesn’t capture all of this.

I’m now writing on board my First Great Western train to Swindon. I see there is an entertainment coach with screens on the backs of the seats, but on the other hand there has just been an announcement telling first class passengers they have to go and queue for their free food, so East Coast are still ahead on that one.

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At first glance Swindon’s reputation – in our department anyway – seems slightly undeserved, but maybe the area round the station is the best bit!

Reverting to standard class

Watch this space – I have to travel Standard Class today on East Coast trains AND I think it may be the start of the Edinburgh summer holidays, so I am not entirely looking forward to my journey to Swindon today. If anything goes wrong a rant may follow which will make my rant against Deutsche Bahn seem as if I had showered them with compliments…

On the other hand, perhaps everything will go right and I will float through the day in a state of utter relaxation and arrive later in a fairy-tale Swindon which basks in the summer sunshine with unicorns leaping across rainbows just round the corner.

More Finland trip pictures here

Now that I’ve spent enough time in the house to get my pictures organised – or near enough – I’ve managed to upload a selection to flickr here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheilamcperry/sets/72157644868401707

What I discovered when browsing through them again was that there were more stations than I remembered, but also more water – I think the best of the latter are the ones taken while sailing out of Stockholm through the archipelago in the early evening.

In case you don’t want to go to flickr and have a look, these are my favourites:

Statue outside Stockholm city hall
Outside Stockholm city hall
Sailing out of Stockholm
Sailing out of Stockholm
Sailing towards Helsinki
Sailing towards Helsinki early in the morning

Random Travel Tips

Some things I’ve learned during my week’s travel by train and ferry:

Make sure you always have some food and drink with you before you get on the train – even if it’s more than you thought you could carry. I was lulled into a sense of false security by my experiences on East Coast trains, and forgot this temporarily. I’m not sure if my tastebuds will ever recover from the shock of the Deutsche Bahn cheese sandwich.

Leading on from the first point, the catering arrangements on trains will hardly ever match what’s available at stations – especially at Brussels Midi and Stockholm Central. So it’s worth either stocking up on supplies as you change trains  or eating if you have time between connections.

Helsinki Market Square
Helsinki Market Square

Talking of connections reminds me of my next point, which is that the longer you have between trains the better. On long distance trips, there is a good chance of delay somewhere. I am particularly over-cautious about this so I recommend at least two hours for connections, and even then an overnight stop is sometimes better. There were several occasions on my recent travels when I had less than an hour in hand, and I didn’t enjoy either running up the steps to the next platform in Brussels with all my luggage because the escalator had broken down and there was only ten minutes to spare, or arriving in Copenhagen half an hour after my train to Stockholm had departed.

This leads neatly on to the need to prepare before going away. I don’t mean preparing in the sense of making sure you have your passport and toothbrush with you, but in the sense of thinking about what to do in certain scenarios. I remember someone once asking me why  I always expected things to go wrong with journeys, and I suppose it was because of past travel experiences. So although I didn’t have an exact plan for getting to Helsinki when I was stranded in Malmo and had missed my ferry, I had researched the different ferry options beforehand and knew there was a chance of catching the ship that sailed right into Helsinki instead of to Turku. For some reason it was always the connection in Copenhagen that worried me most when I was planning the journey, perhaps because it wasn’t even suggested by the Man in Seat 61! I think perhaps my final travel tip should be not to use routes or options not described in detail on his website.

However, my final tip instead is to try and relax and enjoy yourself, no matter what happens along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to do this after you’ve been travelling for 48 hours and things start to go wrong when the end seems to be in sight. But people will generally be a lot more helpful if you’re not shouting at them. (This could be a good tip for life too.)

If I never travel with Deutsche Bahn again it will be too soon…

12th June: OK – if I’ve ever complained about the UK railways, I apologise wholeheartedly. Not to Virgin Trains, obviously, as none of the other European companies has so far abandoned me on the platform at Carstairs with a shouted instruction to  ‘get on the next train that comes along’ although on my DB trip last Saturday they came close, only it was at Copenhagen not Carstairs.

I write this part of the post on a DB train that was supposed to take me to Cologne in a first class sleeping compartment, but not only did my coach not appear with the rest of the train in Copenhagen, apparently because of the after-effects of bad storms in the north of Germany, but the train isn’t going to Cologne at all. I’ve managed to find a couchette somewhere + the conductor has ‘promised’ to throw me out on the platform at Dortmund at five o’clock in the morning, from where I am desperately hoping they might still get me to Brussels in time to catch my Eurostar connection. As they will only have about 7 hours to do that, in the morning, I don’t think I’ll be holding my breath.
And by the way, I won’t be able to post this for a while because there’s no WiFi on the train and all my gadgets are running out of power as there are no power points. Also I have had to ingest another of DB’s nasty cheese, mayonnaise and gherkin sandwiches and will probably be unable to sleep. I know from past experience it’s almost impossible to sleep in a couchette anyway.

In the morning  – 13th June.
So far, so good. I lulled myself to sleep after a while by devising a contest to find the worst train operator in Europe, but I couldn’t make up my mind if the honour would go to Virgin Trains or Deutsche Bahn. Will have to think that through later.
I think I may be on my way to Cologne now, although of course it’s hard to tell.
A little later – yes, this seems to be Cologne. Cathedral just outside the station, check. Starbucks on the square, check. Lack of functional public WiFi, check. I still quite like Cologne, and at least I seem to be here in plenty of time for my connection to Brussels. You may detect a note of uncertainty in my tone. That’s because almost every train on the departures board here is showing delays or reduced numbers of coaches.

A little later again… waiting for Eurostar at Brussels Midi. The thalys train got us here from Cologne very smoothly. I’ve checked in before almost everyone else so came through passport + customs in no time. I just couldn’t face the stress of hanging around in yet another station wondering if I was in the right place or not. At least with Eurostar it’s all so formal that you can’t really go wrong – but I might yet find a way. Just eaten a great piece of quiche in one of the station cafes – no weird cheese and gherkin sandwiches here.
An hour or two later: in the tunnel.
Another hour or so later that same day: back to the splendour of East Coast first class travel.
There may be more railway pics later once I collate the results from all my devices.

Dortmund station
Dortmund station, around 5 a.m.

What to do while waiting

Despite the thrill of sailing right into the harbour at Helsinki with Silja line and the inconvenience of having to travel to Turku to catch the Viking line ferry, I thought the Viking one was better – or at least my cabin was. For a start, it wasn’t situated away down under the car decks. Instead it was on deck 8 – there were 11 or 12 decks altogether – and had its own porthole. No, kindle fire auto-correct, it definitely didn’t have any potholes. My only regret was not being able to spend longer enjoying this, as it arrived in Stockholm at around 6.30 a.m. I suppose some people had the stamina to stay up late enjoying the restaurants, spas, casinos and shopping facilities, but not me. I was in my cabin quite early on, trying to work out how to switch off the cute little lights round the porthole. Of course there was so much daylight anyway that extra little lights made very little difference. I had sort of planned to take a bus tour during my five hours in Stockholm, but the most I managed was an extremely short stroll round the town hall and an hour or two in almost the same place I had sat on Sunday. The weather was similarly pleasant too.

Stockholm - town hall
Stockholm – town hall
Stockholm Central Station
Stockholm Central Station

I wasn’t too far from Stockholm central station, so I had no trouble getting back there with the statutory two hours to spare before my train time. It’s only an hour for UK trains. But on this trip I have often needed extra time to work out how to open luggage lockers, to make sure I have the right currency and attempt to buy suitable refreshments – in this case a power bar with yogurt and Apple and approximately five pounds of sugar, a giant twix in case that wasn’t enough sugar, and a banana. Then of course I have to find my way to the platform, usually so far from the station concourse that I’m extremely glad the relevant authorities seem to be able to decide on which train departs from which platform hours beforehand, unlike the people who run King’s Cross and Edinburgh Haymarket, to name but two stations I know well. Note added later: this last point is not of course applicable to Deutsche Bahn, but more on that in my next post.

There and back again – I hope

11th June: I’m sitting here at Helsinki station, having arrived far too early for my train to Turku. I prefer it this way, especially after the missed train fiasco earlier.

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Today has been a free day. I have walked a little too far despite having spent some time on trams and an hour and a half going round some of the many islands on a boat – in case I hadn’t seen enough boats lately. Last night I had dinner in a very picturesque restaurant that apparently used to be frequented by Sibelius and his friends. I wish I had been able to go to a concert while in Helsinki.
On this occasion I’ve got hold of a small amount of food and drink to take with me on the train. I haven’t usually bothered on this trip because of having to carry it, but after some of my food experiences I’ve decided it’s worthwhile.

A little later – on train to Turku – ferry port. I realise this blog hasn’t had a lot of actual trains in it yet, but I have just taken some Finnish train pics so here’s one of the train I’m on.

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In Helsinki

10th June: Yes, for anyone who is still wondering, I’ve made it to Helsinki. I was pleased in the end to have changed my ferry booking, as I was able to make a dramatic entrance, sailing majestically past the conference centre, which happens to be right on the harbour front. I made it through disembarkation, checked into my hotel – also near the harbour – and still got to the conference in time for morning coffee.

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The ship sat outside for a while but wasn’t actually waiting to take me back to Stockholm. I’ll be going to Turku tomorrow to catch a different ferry.
In the meantime I will be a tourist as my presentation has been delivered and the conference has just finished. As often happens, I have played the part of class clown but most people seemed to be enjoying it.
I will report back later on my return journey, which will be slightly different, but a bit the same – hoping for no faulty trains next time though. I remember on one UK journey hearing the ominous station announcement: ‘This train is a complete failure.’ That isn’t what I want to hear any time on Thursday or Friday in any language.

Lazing on a summer afternoon

8th June continued: This is a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon – sitting in the sun by the river in Stockholm, wondering whether to have an ice-cream or not, and if my efforts at photography can possibly capture the silver-topped ripples of the river. If it is a river – again my knowledge of geography does not stand me in good stead.
Ok, I’ve talked myself into an ice-cream.

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Later that same day – now on board the ferry Silja Serenade. As my cabin is below the car decks, I will aim to spend as little time as possible inside it. There’s a special lift down to it called Zero.
Help! We’re moving…

This reminds me of sailing up the Oslo fjord years ago on a cruise ship that was later used as a troop ship in the Falklands. An endless succession of little waterside communities, their houses built as close to the water as possible, lots of boats moored at jetties. Inland it seems to be mostly forest. I don’t think the land rises as steeply here though as it does in Norway. In a way it’s sort of like the English Lake District. There are certainly some great candidates for Wild Cat Island.

Every so often a speed-boat will rush across in front of the ferry or race alongside us for a while. Either of these is potentially risky as this ferry is massive – essentially a combined hotel, holiday park and shopping mall with a keel.

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Still travelling hopefully

8th June On I go, again feeling more rested after a good night’s sleep in Malmo. The plan for today is to travel to Stockholm – I’m writing this on the train, so at least that plan has got off to a good start – where I’ll catch the late afternoon ferry to Helsinki.
I was just about to complain that there was nowhere to get a coffee in Malmo before 7 am when I worked out from the word ‘fruhkost’ on my ticket that I would get some breakfast on the train, and sure enough I did. No, I didn’t think I spoke Swedish either! I managed to get hold of it by my usual method of following some people who looked as if they might be going for breakfast.

It’s amazing, from what I’ve seen of the countryside so far in between thinking about food and spilling a fruit drink I thought was going to be a yogurt everywhere, how Swedish it looks – lots of pine trees with odd red houses in clearing, and a few lakes. I’m not sure if I can get a picture as we’re zipping along quite fast. Also most of the lakes seem to be on the other side of the coach. Not sure if there’s a geographical reason for this.

By the way, the WiFi situation has now improved. This is partly because so far Sweden is way ahead of other places I’ve been through on this trip in providing free public WiFi, but partly because I’ve made the exciting discovery that my smartphone can make its own WiFi hotspot quite easily. There is even a menu option for it, which I hadn’t noticed before as it’s hiding right at the end where I hardly ever go. Fortunately I am on pay as you go, otherwise I would have run up data roaming charges the size of the national debt by now. As it is I am limited to quite a small amount of data every day, but it’s useful in WiFi emergencies.